In recent years, a discourse of ‘ethical artificial intelligence’ has emerged and gained international traction in response to widely publicised AI failures. In Australia, the discourse around ethical AI does not accord with the reality of AI deployment in the public sector. Drawing on institutional ethnographic approaches, this paper describes the misalignments between how technology is described in government documentation, and how it is deployed in social service delivery. We argue that the propagation of ethical principles legitimates established new public management strategies, and pre-empts questions regarding the efficacy of AI development; instead positioning implementation as inevitable and, provided an ethical framework is adopted, laudable. The ethical AI discourse acknowledges, and ostensibly seeks to move past, widely reported administrative failures involving new technologies. In actuality, this discourse works to make AI implementation a reality, ethical or not.